Climate Histories: Communicating Cultural Knowledge of Environmental Change

Lead Research Organisation: University of Cambridge
Department Name: Social Anthropology


How do people perceive and communicate changes in their environment and climate? Scientific accounts typically involve intricate measurements of changes in temperatures, and complex meteorological modeling. However there are other accounts of change, these might be inferred for example through the changing behaviour of particular species of animals and plants or through the arrival of new types of weather. Moreover, the forms in which these changes are communicated are not necessarily those of technical meteorological accounts. Information about climatic change - both current and in the past - may be embedded in genres such as folklore, stories, song, poetry, life histories and even monastic records. Elements of scientific accounts may be drawn upon, or it may be eschewed altogether. These very diverse 'climate histories' can be found both overseas and in the UK. Our network seeks to address how we can make the most of them.

Climate histories are a vital source of information. They can tell us a great deal about the environmental change that has happened in the past, the effects this had had upon the humans (and other species) living through it, and the strategies that have been adopted in order to deal with such changes. But there are also difficulties in taking these accounts at face value. They may be difficult to obtain, and they present complex challenges for analysis. These include questions of reliability, genre, audience, and performance. They can be analysed both in terms of the information they contain, and the intellectual and emotional responses of those who hear them.

To understand these climate histories better, we need to pool expertise from a variety of disciplines, including social anthropology, history, and the humanities. These disciplines have each developed differing methodologies for documenting and interpreting the significance of particular genres of communication within the contexts in which they are produced. Our network will bring together experts from these areas, putting them in dialogue with climate specialists in the natural sciences on the one hand, and publics interested in producing and consuming climate histories on the other.

The network will convene virtual methodology seminars, in which colleagues around the world will share ideas on the methods that can best be used to gather and interpret climate histories. We will then hold a workshop to explore ways in which researchers can develop new approaches to the climate histories they collected during their research. The event will culminate in a public conference, in which the workshopped research will be presented and discussed. This will lay the groundwork for an edited publication and future research proposal, to be developed during the final months of the grant.
The project will maintain a strong presence online through the creation of its own website and associated forum features. This will allow the ongoing collaboration of network members between events, and represent the main point of contact with the general public. In the longer term we aim to explore the development of resources of particular use for teaching in schools, aiming at an audience of GCSE and A-Level Geography students. The materials will introduce various climate histories and illustrate the ways in which climate change is perceived and responded to in different social and cultural settings. Members of the network will also give talks to local/natural history societies and school groups, explaining the main research activities and research findings.

Planned Impact

The non-academic beneficiaries of the network fall broadly into two categories. The first comprises members of the public who are concerned about environmental change and would benefit from the increased awareness that an attention to climate histories might provide. This includes those involved in charities, NGOs, and local climate concern groups. We see the impact upon this constituency as being twofold. Firstly, the network will help increase awareness of, and exposure to, climate histories from around the world. This audience therefore gains an empirical benefit. Secondly, the work that the network will do in interpretive methodologies is also of considerable use to these audiences in exploring how climate histories might and might not be used effectively. We hope that the outcome of the network will be able to empower people to use their climate histories in a way that is honest, intellectually rigorous, and communicatively effective; we also hope to foster critical thinking skills that allow them to think more deeply about the climate histories they encounter.

To achieve these ends, we have a number of programmes in place that will foster outreach to interested parties:

1. The network will host its own website where network members can upload materials including summaries of their own research, commentaries upon debates relating to climate histories in the new, and information about new research being constructed elsewhere. The site will be moderated, but open to members of the public, who can comment, debate and explore the issues through a series of blog and forum features.

2. Our January conference will include a public film screening and a public exhibition of climate histories (where informed consent has been obtained) to increase public awareness of the issues. The film screening will be followed by a discussion and debate, and academics will be available during the exhibition to explain more to interested parties.

3. We will produce materials - such as case studies and worksheets, as well as talks, to introduce UK secondary schoolchildren to the issues associated with researching histories of environmental change. Support material for this will also be downloadable from the website.

The second group to benefit comprises authors of climate histories themselves. This includes local history groups, authors and artists in the UK, and many more around the world, in the locations where network members conduct their research. We will work collaboratively with these historians to consider strategies by which the environmental changes they perceive could be communicated to different audiences. This will be done both through collaboration in the field and, where possible, incorporating such historians into our network - as well as outreach activities to local history societies and the dissemination of research conclusions during follow-up fieldtrips. We hope to make climate historians aware of the expectations of the diverse audiences they may want to address and the implications of different communicative strategies, thereby empowering them to communicate environmental change in a way that achieves the ends to which they aspire.


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Bodenhorn B (2013) Of Time and Forest Fires, or What Are Scientists for Anyway? in The Cambridge Journal of Anthropology

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Cameron L (2013) Resources of Hope: Wicken Fen Stories of Anthropogenic Nature in The Cambridge Journal of Anthropology

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Diemberger H (2012) Communicating Climate Knowledge in Current Anthropology

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Dillon P (2012) Thinking like a wetland in Journal of Arts & Communities

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Hastrup K (2013) The Ice as Argument: Topographical Mementos in the High Arctic in The Cambridge Journal of Anthropology

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Irvine R (2013) John Clare in the Anthropocene in The Cambridge Journal of Anthropology

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Janik L (2013) Changing Paradigms: Flux and Stability in Past Environments in The Cambridge Journal of Anthropology

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Kennel C (2013) Afterword: Speaking Scientific Truth to Power in The Cambridge Journal of Anthropology

Description The network developed an evidence base for the importance of cross-disciplinary collaborations in the exploration of the historical and social dimensions of climate change.
Exploitation Route The network has enabled ongoing collaboration with IPCC lead author climate scientists, putting forward a voice for the humanities and social sciences within their research; established outreach contact with schools, feeding into curriculum development on the theme of environment and climate change; and has led to an ongoing seminar series and successful applications for project grants.
The network continues to expand and is developing further initiatives to address issues of environmental responsibility between generations. This has led to new applications for funding, for example an application is being submitted in March 2017 for a pilot project: Sharing Responsibility: Spirituality and Science in a Changing Climate, with the aim of generating a large collaborative project on this theme. This involves the PI and takes forward the PhD student trained through the AHRC Pathways Project for post-doctoral funding.
Sectors Education,Environment

Description This project was seminal in bringing to life a network of scholars across disciplines in Cambridge and overseas, and explored novel ways of bringing humanities and social science perspectives into dialogue with climate change. The network has been successful in developing a series of small grants to support a seminar series, outreach and impact work and large AHRC grant.
First Year Of Impact 2009
Sector Education,Environment
Impact Types Cultural,Societal

Description Collaboration on Climate Histories seminar series
Amount £6,000 (GBP)
Organisation University of Cambridge 
Department Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH)
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom of Great Britain & Northern Ireland (UK)
Start 10/2011 
End 09/2015
Description ESRC Impact Acceleration Account
Amount £22,000 (GBP)
Organisation Economic and Social Research Council 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom of Great Britain & Northern Ireland (UK)
Start 01/2014 
End 09/2014
Description Gathering and communicating climate knowledge, with particular reference to generating impact at local and national levels
Amount £9,100 (GBP)
Organisation Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom of Great Britain & Northern Ireland (UK)
Start 10/2011 
End 07/2015
Description Overcoming the legal barriers to REDD+ implementation
Amount £30,000 (GBP)
Organisation University of Cambridge 
Department Cambridge Conservation Initiative
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom of Great Britain & Northern Ireland (UK)
Start 07/2012 
End 07/2013